Thursday, October 21, 2010

My Top 15 Novels

This is the meme: Fifteen novels you've read that will always stick with you. First fifteen you can recall in no more than 15 minutes.

Here is my list, in no particular order:
  • Nine Princes in Amber by Roger Zelazny - First book of the Amber series: I was sold on it by Page 2. It got me to try my hand at writing fiction again instead of comic book stories.
  • The Heritage of Hastur by Marion Zimmer Bradley - Women like her writing better than men do... well, straight men.
  • A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett - Cinderella story + similarly named heroine + heroine liked to make up cool stories. What's not to love?
  • Carrie by Stephen King - I was eleven when this book came out. I loved the notion of telekinesis - even had a set of the Rhine ESP cards - but the language and sexual content of this novel took me out of the realm of kiddie books.
  • The Far Side of Evil by Sylvia Louise Engdahl - original version. This one also took me out of the realm of kiddie books, but without sex or foul language. One of my early exposures to adult versions of cruelty.
  • Shutter Island by Dennis LeHane - This book was a major mind-screw. I loved it. Movie true to the novel, also great.
  • The Sandman, Vol. 7: Brief Lives - I loved Delirium. No one who knows me will be surprised by this.
  • A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle - Best explanation of the 4th dimension that I ever read.
  • Startide Rising by David Brin - Nonhuman intelligent species don't always think the way we do.
  • Escape to Witch Mountain by Alexander Key - These kids are gifted and different from other kids. They live in a cruel world that confuses them. Finally, they find 'their people' and become happy. A parallel for real-life misfits.
  • The Other by Thomas Tryon - What a vile book! Harvest Home was also good, but this one sticks with me more, perhaps because I read it first.
  • Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl - screw Willy Wonka. I can dream up my own Candyland.
  • The Best of H.P. Lovecraft by H. P. Lovecraft - "The Silver Key" will always be my favorite. Lovecraft's manifesto against mundane thinking.
  • The Other Side of Tomorrow, collected by Roger Elwood - edges out Dystopian Visions. Elwood glutted the SF market in the 70s with anthologies. I read every one I could get my hands on.
  • Red Dragon by Thomas Harris - Yes, I also enjoyed Silence of the Lambs. This one explores the pathology of its villain in greater depth.
I did give this more than 15 minutes of thought, I confess. I've read a lot of books in my life. Some of the books above are collections of short stories, rather than novels. One is a graphic novel. Just be grateful I didn't list the entire Phoenix saga from the X-Men. All of these books either sparked my creativity or took my mind in a new direction. Sometimes I learned new (and not always nice) ways of thinking. Startide Rising stretched it in alien yet idealistic ways, Red Dragon drew me down into the pit.

Most of the lists I've seen in this meme, and others like it, contain works of great literature: Catcher in the Rye, Tom Sawyer, the periphrastic and boring Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I'm sure many of these people are telling the truth, but sometimes I suspect they just list the books they were forced to read in school. I make no pretensions to reading good literature. I read fiction for pleasure, not to become 'cultured'. That's what my schools and my parents were for. The books above have special meaning for me in one way or another.


Friday, October 15, 2010

A racial question

I’ve been messing around with an idea for a novel for a couple of years. At its core, it’s a thriller with paranormal elements. Think Dean Koontz, though, more than Stephanie Meyer. No vampires in this one, no young hunk (or heroine) as the lead.

From his inception, I’ve thought of the character as having a psychic talent... and as biracial (black* and white, in this case). He’s not John Aleron, if you’ve read that character’s stories. This is someone new.

Now, I’m starting to wonder if this is such a good idea. One reason: most of the paranormal and thriller readers I’ve met over the years have been white in overwhelming numbers. Would publishers even consider a story centering around a biracial male character? I’m not saying all white readers are horrible racists who hate blacks… but publishers might be afraid that the reader base might not 'connect' with the character.

A second reason: how many quirks should I give this character? My spouse tells me that a mistake she often sees are authors who make a character quirky in so many ways that getting a ‘handle’ on them is difficult for the reader. Is paranormal + male + biracial too much?

A third reason: I am neither black nor biracial. My character would be raised in a predominantly white environment for various reasons, including the income of his family. The more money your family has in the USA, the more likely you are to be living around white people. Would black readers find my writing this character offensive? I was exposed to the poorer segment of the black population when I was a kid, but there is a big difference between knowing black people and knowing what it’s like to 'be black'.

At Magna Cum Murder in 2008, I had the pleasure of meeting Austin Camacho. He sat on a panel that dealt with writing characters who are unlike oneself in many ways. Austin is African-American and male. The character he was discussing was female and Irish. I pointed out that this was a character who differed from him in gender, race, nationality, and possibly religion as well. She was also an ex-jewel thief, but I don’t know what Austin’s past hobbies may have been.

Austin explained that a character could be very unlike his or her author in some ways, but share experiences that the author was quite capable of describing and exploring. My character, being biracial and older (around fifty years of age), would have been confronted daily with the same situation I had while growing up: not fitting in. I was an intellectual living in a significantly illiterate state, a liberal among conservatives, a lesbian and a Pagan among fundamentalist Christians. My hero would have some of these social disadvantages as well, plus the additional difference of being biracial. Someone like me could hide personality differences  by keeping my mouth shut, but racial heritage is usually self-evident.

To me, the notion of a psychic who would not only feel the ‘usual’ emotions of the people around him, but also the attitudes towards his race, is very compelling. We have been educated to ‘not see race’ in this day and age, but when we meet someone of another race in real life we often stumble over the baggage of our upbringing. My hero would be aware of that stumbling on a regular basis. Is this patronizing on my part?

What do you think?

* I use the term 'black' instead of 'African-American' because the latter is a) long, and b) acknowledges that there are black people beside African-Americans. I refer to Austin as an African-American because I'm comparing him to an Irish jewel thief. 


Thursday, October 07, 2010

Circle of Dishonor: a Spouse's Review

My wife's first novel.
I think this is a great book, but I have a serious bias. Here are some things I enjoy, though:

1. The heroine is not posing as a man in order to follow the man she loves or to avoid being married off. She took up the masquerade to get her man, not 'get a man'.

2. The secret society involved in this post-Civil War intrigue is not the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK were active, but not the only group in operation.

3. The story is set in a very exciting and turbulent time of Kentucky's history, one that is underrepresented in fiction. Between the Regulators, the Klan, and the feuds, one could set hundreds of stories here without running out of material. Gwen brings up some of this history without being pedantic.

4. The story has classic noir elements without being set in a 'noir' era or featuring a Sam Spade ripoff. You have the alienated private eye who keeps booze in a convenient drawer. You have the hooker with the heart of gold. You even have organized crime, although it is a different sort of 'mob'.

5. The 'current' plan of the villains is truly dastardly. I won't give it away and spoil the fun.

Want to draw your own conclusions? Go to and click on the link to read a sample from the novel. I don't think you'll be disappointed.